Juliet Escoria’s debut collection of short stories, Black Cloud, is quick, smart, and darkly entertaining. Whether recounting the childhood of an adult crack baby or snorting ketamine from a lasagna tray, her work reads lonely like a comedown, punctuated by pangs of morning guilt. Stories begin and whirl upwards, dancing with notions of sexual vulnerability, the apathetic power of beauty, and drugs that make you dead inside.
The 31-year-old Californian has been sober for a while now, leaving a life of sad sex and shit hotel rooms for a deal with indie publishing house Coping Mechanisms, reading alongside best-selling authors and Iowa grads. Hyper-aware of the constant solidarity bleeding substance from any of her relationships, Escoria’s simple, direct prose offers a refreshing spin on sad-girl lit. In deviating from linear form, with little attention paid to cementing an end, you’re left with an overarching feeling, one that lingers for days.We caught up with her on a cloudy day before her reading at Mellow Pages Library in Bushwick Friday evening, and talked about growing up in California, moving to NYC, and the push-pull between power and vulnerability.
What was it like growing up in California?
It was weird. It’s so pretty and sunny and everything, but I was extremely depressed. It made me feel like a freak. What I felt was so different than what it looked like. I grew up in Del Mar, an upper middle class, 95% white beach community. Everyone there was wealthy. I thought I was poor until I moved out. My friends all had the $40,000 cars, huge allowances, access to their parent’s credit cards. I didn’t have that stuff. But the drugs were really, really good because everyone’s parents were so rich. There were a lot of drugs, that part I liked a lot. When you’re over analytical and you grow up around that kind of superficiality and blandness it eats at you. But at the same time, no matter where you grow up when you’re fucked up on the inside it’s going to be bad for you.
When did you move to New York?
In 2009, I was 26, to go to grad school at Brooklyn College. But I left in 2012, after a bad breakup. I was unemployed. It felt like New York was pushing me out, and I was fine with that. The year after grad school I was working all the time, not writing at all. I think I wrote two stories the entire year. I’m working to live here, not writing here. I have to feel somewhat conscious to write. If I’ve been running around all day it just doesn’t work. Basically it came down to do I want to be a New Yorker or do I want to be a writer.
When did you start using drugs?
I smoked pot in junior high. I was going to this private Christian school because my parents didn’t want me to get in trouble. As soon as I went to the public high school, I did all the drugs I had access to. Everything but crack and PCP.
Yeah, east coast drugs.
I did heroin a few times in ninth grade, but I just smoked it and put it off limits because I knew I’d like it too much. Everything else was a yes.
The majority of your stories feel very true. But was your mom really a crackhead?
They’re mostly true, that story’s the odd one out. That one’s not true at all. That was mostly me having this fear in the back of my head that I’d grow up and be this drug addict mom, even though I don’t want kids. The rest of them are more or less true, but I couldn’t publish it as nonfiction.
What sparked your sobriety?
It was right before I moved here. I was on this medication for being bi-polar and had to have enzyme liver tests every six months. It had always been fine, then all of a sudden it was three times what normal was. They thought I had hepatitis or something because it was so bad. They gave me an ultrasound of the liver. I was lying about how much stuff I had been using. That really freaked me out. So I stopped drinking for 30 days to see what happened. But I was also freaked out because moving to New York seemed really scary. I was getting real bad on a combination of mostly methadone and some sort of benzodiazepine… any opiate I could get my hands on really, mixed with a ton of alcohol. I didn’t really think about it at the time. Then I started having problems with my heart beat. I’d be like, okay, that happened, so I shouldn’t take pills or whatever for like three days. But that never happened. It was those things combined, my health and the fear of having constant access to everything.
How does sexual vulnerability and subsequent power play into your stories?
I think a lot of it has to do with being a woman, and the weirdness of being an attractive woman. It puts you in a lot of vulnerable situations, but at the same time it gives you a lot of power. There are a lot of times when I feel like I can’t talk to someone or I don’t want to help someone out because of the position it puts me in. Then other times you can get what you want because of that. It kind of plays along with that. In sexuality there is weakness and strength, and sometimes there’s strength in the weakness.
Can you talk about your videos and how they play into the book?
I’ve always been into visual art. I liked drawing a lot in high school. At one point I was going to do graphic design. Then I stopped doing the visual stuff when I started writing. At one point, I decided to just do both. All the alt lit stuff on the internet where people are incorporating visual modes seem encouraging in a lot of ways. Video seemed like a good way. I grew up watching a lot of music videos, and I’d always think if I had a band I would want to do this in the music video. So music videos for stories seemed like an interesting idea. A video per story was just pushing it as far as I could and doing something extreme and wanting to do something that someone else hadn’t done before.
Your stories remind me of cigarette smoke. They begin, move, there’s no real end, and you’re left with the smell of smoke hanging in the room. Have you always written in this super short, almost ethereal form?
I’ve gotten lazy as a reader. I want to get sucked into something. I want to be forced to read it. I grew up writing really bad, angsty poetry. Then I started doing fiction because it seemed harder than poetry. I tried to write a novel. It was bad so I gave up on it to do the short story thing. I try to write longer stories but it’s just my attention span. I get bored when I try to write long stories.
I mean, I get bored sometimes trying to read long stories. I feel like Faulkner wouldn’t even get published today.
I know. Maybe it would by some literary magazine put out by some university that no one reads.
It’s lame to say, but those giant block paragraphs can be so daunting.
Small print, too. I’m glad my book has larger print with wide margins.
Are you working on anything now?
Yeah, a memoir slash novel slash collage type project, smaller pieces that are all in different formats. I don’t know if it’s going to work. Like everything, it’s an experiment. But at least it’s fun to work on.